Three questions for Laurajane Smith, on the "fellows-ambassadors" scheme set up by the CNRS

Lettre de l'InSHS Anthropologie


Director of the Centre of Heritage and Museum Studies at the Australian National University, Laurajane Smith specialises in the study of the politicisation of heritage. Member of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences and affiliate member of the Cambridge Heritage Research Centre, she is one of ten foreign personalities to have joined the CNRS as 'fellows-ambassadors'. This scheme, which is a first for the CNRS, is designed to confirm the CNRS's attractiveness on the international research scene. These prestigious researchers, invited on the recommendation of CNRS institutes, undertake to spend at least one month a year for three years in one or more laboratories in France.

Laurajane Smith, you are the first CNRS Fellow at the CNRS Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, can you introduce yourself and tell us about your research topics ?

I am an interdisciplinary scholar of Critical Heritage Studies. Currently, I am the Director of the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies at the Australian National University, Canberra. My academic background is in archaeology and anthropology, and I have also taught in Australian Indigenous Studies. I developed an interest in heritage studies working with Indigenous and other communities in heritage management during the 1980 s. This work exposed me to the frustrations many different people had with the way ‘experts’ understood the meaning and value of heritage. Wanting to understand the tensions that arose, my work has focused on retheorizing heritage as an ongoing public performance or practice of knowledge-making that brings the past to the present to address current social problems while mediating and regulating social change. Heritage is therefore not about objects or places, which are more usefully understood as the cultural tools individuals, groups and nations use not only as aides for remembering and forgetting but also to legitimize and delegitimize historical narratives, claims to identity, and sense of place. Heritage is a political resource that any number of stakeholders, including heritage experts and professionals, use to negotiate their social position and standing. I have also argued that heritage practices are framed by competing discourses, with a dominant ‘Authorized Heritage Discourse’ embedded in intergovernmental and European agencies, who stress the prominence of expert knowledge while often sidelining other experiences and knowledge about ‘heritage’ (however defined).

More recently I have started to explore in more depth the emotional or affective practices of heritage making. For instance, looking at how visitors to museums and other sites of heritage use their visits to emotionally invest in historical narratives and the values and ideologies that underpin them. This work stresses that visiting is in itself a heritage-making performance and that visiting is not about education but rather reinforcing social and political values. There is a range of implications of this for museological practice, contemporary issues of social in/justice, and populist politics. Arising from this I have a developing interest in how heritage is mobilized and explicitly used in right-wing populist and left-wing counter-movements.

Why did you accept to join the CNRS Fellow Program ? How could it be of interest to your research ? On which themes do you think it would be interesting to collaborate with the French research teams ?

The Fellow Program offered me the opportunity to engage more deeply with French scholarship on heritage studies by meeting different researchers and talking about their past and current research. The Critical Heritage Studies movement aims to foster dialogue between different research and language traditions and epistemological approaches and the fellowship was an opportunity to further develop that aim. Gaining more understanding of French scholarship within heritage studies helps me think about how theorising heritage may be further developed.

Research on the emotional nature of heritage is ongoing in France, especially around the fire and aftermath at Notre Dame. I am very interested in developing collaborations around the affective nature of heritage and what these emotions allow heritage to do in society.

Both I and colleagues at the Australian National University are very interested in reparation and repatriation issues and developing museological practices informed by understanding of the ongoing colonial impacts of museum collections. Additionally, I would be interested in working with museum researchers on how French visitors engage with and use museums in heritage-making.

I am most interested in developing collaborations around the mobilizations of heritage by the right. Heritage as both a political and emotional resource does a lot of work in emotionally validating right-wing claims. Nostalgia, a complex emotion closely linked with heritage is often defined as the culprit here – but this misunderstands that nostalgia can have progressive outcomes as much as it has conservative or reactionary outcomes. We need an urgent reassessment of the agonistic and emotional politics of the right, and I think heritage is one way to get at the emotionality of populism and thus how it may be challenged.

The CNRS Fellow program consists of a one-month stay in France each year for 3 years ? You are currently in France for your first stay : How is it going ? What are your plans for the next two years ?

My first visit is almost at an end, and I think it has been going well, I have met a lot of researchers and talked to them about their research. The tour of the Notre Dame conservation work was one of many highlights. I have certainly been very stimulated to think about how the idea of heritage is understood and used in France. To that end, one idea has been to develop a workshop for next year (2024) to develop a conversation about the different Francophone and Anglophone approaches to the subject, with an edited book being developed on this theme. I think this will be important to stimulate further debate within the Critical Heritage Studies movement. I hope opportunities to work with some of the researchers at the Parisian museums I talked to will eventuate in 2025. Going forward I hope to talk to more researchers and practitioners in the heritage and museum fields and I encourage interested readers to contact me. I will be back in March 2024 to continue conversations, but before then I can also be contacted on my email :

I want to thank the CNRS for the opportunity it has afforded me and to thank all those who have taken time away from their research to talk to me and discuss thoughts and ideas.


Laurajane Smith
Université nationale australienne